Medical Examiner

Spanking Is Great for Sex

Which is why it’s grotesque for parenting.

Courtesy of Vanity Fair/Wikimedia Commons

From Vanity Fair’s “Bifurcated Girls” special issue, June 6, 1903.

Courtesy of Vanity Fair/Wikimedia Commons

Once again, I’ve been accused of pedophilia. Well, to be technical, my sexual identity was called “somewhat pedophilic.” But we’re talking about one of the most loathsome things a person can be accused of, so why split hairs? I’m also regularly told that my sexuality is “repulsive,” “damaged,” and “abusive.” But all of those feel like Valentines compared with “pedophilic.”

People say this to me so often because I’m kinky, and I’ve written about it. I have a spanking fetish. In my case, that means I like to be spanked, usually with a hand, belt, hairbrush, wooden spoon, switch, or paddle. It sexually gratifies me. I’ve had submissive fantasies for as long as I can remember, and it’s part of my identity. I consider my kink to be my sexual orientation.

To be clear—because apparently I have to be—I am an adult. My husband, who is not kinky, is an adult. My first boyfriend (the only other sexual partner I’ve had) was an adult, too. Everyone is an adult. Everyone consents.

So I have a question: If it’s “somewhat pedophilic” when my adult husband consensually spanks me in a simulated “punishment,” what should we call it when parents do the same physical thing to actual children in an actual punishment?

I realize that many well-meaning parents will disagree with me, but spanking kids is gross. There are a lot of reasons why—it’s counterproductive and ineffective, for starters—but there’s another reason that nobody talks about. Butts are sexual. That’s why the area is one of the few “private” parts that, along with breasts and genitals, we feel the need to cover with a swimsuit. If a parent saw a teacher patting a child’s shoulder, it’d be no big deal. But if a parent saw a teacher patting a child’s butt, she would (rightly) be very alarmed.

Spanking is a sex act. It has been for a very long time—probably even longer than it’s been a parenting choice. A fresco at the Etruscan Tomb of the Whipping, which dates back to approximately 490 B.C., depicts an erotic spanking. In Francum, a 1599 epigram by John Davies, includes one of the most explicit descriptions of sexual masochism in Renaissance poetry. In Victorian England—well, there are way too many examples to list them all, so suffice it to say that spanking was a constant focus of Victorian erotica.

And butts aren’t just culturally sexualized; they’re biologically sexual, too. Nerve tracts that pass through the lower spine carry sensory information to and from both the butt and genitals. Some scientists speculate that these nerves can stimulate one region when the other is provoked. There’s also a blood vessel in the pelvic region called the common iliac artery. When blood rushes to a child’s butt—because, say, you’re spanking him—blood rushes down that artery. But the artery splits. Some of it directs blood to the genitals. So when you cause blood to rush to a child’s butt, you’re also causing it to rush to his or her other sex organs. The other time this kind of genital blood engorgement happens is during erection or arousal.

Oxytocin, a hormone that is released during arousal, can increase pain tolerance by as much as 75 percent. So I wasn’t surprised to read that some kids who are regularly spanked experience a surge of oxytocin when they sense danger. It makes sense. If a kid expects a parent to cause physical pain, why wouldn’t her brain trigger an unconscious state of arousal to release the hormone that helps mitigate that pain? Does the possibility that parental spankings trigger sexual arousal hormones along with tears make anyone else a little uncomfortable?

It’s weird that no one worries about the implications of hitting children on a body part that is culturally and biologically sexual. After all, the spankings I so “repulsively” enjoy are physically identical to the spankings that 81 percent of American parents and hundreds of U.S. school districts inflict or condone.

Most of my friends, like most people in the United States, were spanked as children. They turned out great. (I was spanked as a child, and I turned out kinky, but I’m not convinced there’s a connection. While there might be a relationship between childhood spankings and adult sexual sadomasochism in some cases, there are also lots of kinky people who were never hit as kids.) I also have friends who are loving parents who choose to include spankings in their disciplinary arsenals. So please resist the impulse—which must be overwhelming, I’m sure—to email me and say that your parents spanked you and you “turned out fine.” I believe you. Two-thirds of heavy smokers don’t get cancer, either.

Corporal punishment has always existed, of course, and people have been turning out “fine” (or not fine, frankly, given our history of war, genocide, torture, and violence) forever. But if literature is any evidence, it was only in the past few centuries that people began to ritualistically strike the buttocks. Before that, we didn’t euphemize childhood beatings by isolating them to one specific body part.

(“I would never beat a child,” says a chorus of defensive parents. “I spank. It’s different!” So in other words, they only hit their kids on one special, sexualized bull’s-eye? That is definitely “different.”)

My point is that when my husband spanks me—or Christian Grey spanks Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey—it’s the exact same physical act that parents do to kids every day. The only difference is that when we do it, it’s consensual, sexual, and adult; when parents do it, it’s nonconsensual, punitive, and involves a sobbing child.

After two years of biting my tongue, I’m finally calling out the hypocrisy and moral failure of this debate. Many people are disturbed by the fact that I crave spankings. That’s fine. Let me tell you what disturbs me.

It disturbs me that when I Google the word spanking, I find far more websites about sex than I do about parenting, yet most people still think the act is appropriate to inflict on children. It disturbs me that when an employer in Tennessee was (rightly) charged with sexual battery for spanking his employees, it didn’t spark a national conversation about the possibility that the identical parenting act is the identical crime. It disturbs me that people from both ends of the political spectrum are literally burning copies of Fifty Shades of Grey, but no one is burning best-selling parenting manuals that describe ways to strike a child on his or her “bare bottom” until that child submits a “broken cry.” It disturbs me that when I talked to Murray Straus, the co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, he confirmed that “almost no research” has been done to determine the psychological or physiological sexual effects of hitting children on the same body part that has been canonized in a thousand porn magazines and sex anthems. It disturbs me that even when nonviolent parents make positive choices for their own kids, they rarely speak up to challenge one of the most ingrained practices in our culture.

It disturbs me that when parents or teachers ritualistically strike children on a sexual body part, our country, overwhelmingly, is not disturbed.

Is spanking an appropriate parenting choice? Or is it, for biological, cultural, and historical reasons, a sex act? Before you answer that question, don’t forget—any given child can grow up to disagree.

No one is having this conversation. We need to start.